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It’s a man’s world, or is it? What it’s like for men in female-dominated industries

While many workplaces have come a long way in terms of improving gender diversity, most of the attention has focused on improving career opportunities for women.

But there’s another set of workers that tend to get left out of the discussion: men who want to break into industries typically crowded with women.

In health care and social assistance, for example, women make up 79% of employees. And in education and training, it’s 73%.

So if you’re a man wanting to join a female-dominated industry – say, teaching or nursing – it’s natural you might have a few questions.

Will you have to face certain stigmas or challenges? Will it feel weird or uncomfortable being the only – or one of few – men on staff? And what are the potential advantages and disadvantages of being in the minority?

The advantages of being a male kindergarten teacher

At just 2.7% of the workforce, men in early childhood education are something of an endangered species.

That comes with both pros and cons, say two Deakin academics who have previously taught in pre-schools.

The first positive? ‘I got work easily – on a pile of applicants I stand out,’ says Max Grarock, a former kindergarten teacher and current student at Deakin completing a PhD in Education.

While he was only one of three men during his own university studies, later he was usually the only male kindergarten teacher on staff.

‘Kindergarten workplaces are fairly small workplaces, so I often forget that it was weird,’ Grarock says.

‘I worked for a large council – they used to employ all the kindergarten teachers – and I would be reminded every year, when they’d have an all staff meeting and there’d be about 100 staff across the centres, that I was the only man.’

Grarock says men in the sector sometimes complain about how hard they get it.

‘I actually think that’s just wrong – if anything we get it easy. I mean there’s some awkwardness, it’s not to say there aren’t some things that make it difficult

‘But there’s a lot of things that, because of the unequal way genders are treated by society, actually make the work easier for us.’

One example, he says, it’s pretty standard for a kindergarten teacher to be questioned by a child’s family over their play-based teaching methods.

‘It’s not uncommon for a parent to challenge a kindergarten teacher: “why aren’t you teaching my child anything?” And then the response becomes “well this is how children learn at this age”.

‘I think I never really got hassled around that to the same level as most of my female colleagues because as a man when I say this is how learning happens, I get – unfairly – listened to better.’

'There’s a lot of things that, because of the unequal way genders are treated by society, actually make the work easier for us.'

Max Grarock,
Student, Deakin University

Gender stereotypes in female-dominated industries

Dr Llewellyn Wishart, a lecturer in education at Deakin, spent many years working in childcare programs and pre-schools across Victoria.

Largely he was comfortable working with mostly women. However at times his colleagues, and families, treated him differently.

‘I think some of the women in the cohort were more sort of scratching their heads, like “what is this bloke doing here?” Then you’d get this strange “other-ing” experience of “oh it’s so great that there’s men going into this profession, isn’t that wonderful”.’

Dr Wishart says he would have rather been judged on the quality of his work and interactions rather than his gender.

‘If you’re a man working in childhood education, then you’re the one who’s going to do all the rough and tumble play and you’ll be the one doing the woodwork outdoors and then you’ll be the one hauling the wheelbarrow,’ he says.

‘And sometimes, people who are working in the field who happen to be male, they may have other strengths, other skills and talents which make a difference.’

The most difficult aspect for both Dr Wishart and Grarock was the unfortunate fact that some families are suspicious of male kindergarten teachers.

‘I think they think there’s something weird about a bloke who decides to do that for a job, and they don’t want their child exposed to that,’ Grarock says.

While he understands that parents want to protect their children, he says it’s ‘pretty insulting when it’s implied about you’.

Some advice to bear in mind

Their advice for others thinking of entering a female-dominated industry?

‘Don’t enter a sector like that with aims to be a reformer,’ Grarock says. ‘You think you’re going to be brilliant; there’s hardly any blokes. But there’s a long history of really important women who created the knowledge base that underpins that sector.’

Dr Wishart says men contribute to the diversity of any workplace, and bring different strengths. He hopes to make a difference partly just by being living proof that such a career path is possible for men.

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Dr Llewellyn Wishart
Dr Llewellyn Wishart

Lectuer in Education (Early Childhood), School of Education, Deakin University

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